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THE B-LIST: 'Elementary, my dear Watson': Ranking the best-known Sherlocks

The B-List ranks the top five best-known Sherlocks: (from left) Jonny Lee Miller in "Elementary," Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie films, Benedict Cumberbatch in "Sherlock," and Jeremy Brett in the Granada series.
The B-List ranks the top five best-known Sherlocks: (from left) Jonny Lee Miller in "Elementary," Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie films, Benedict Cumberbatch in "Sherlock," and Jeremy Brett in the Granada series.

There have been 1.3 million adaptations of Sherlock Holmes' adventures — or so it seems.

The fictional "consulting detective" holds the Guinness World Record for "most portrayed movie character." And, thanks to being in the public domain, Holmes has thwarted everything from criminal masterminds to aliens, Cthulhu, time-travelers, vampires and ghosts in thousands of stories written by dozens of authors.

First appearing in The Strand Magazine in 1891, Holmes became so wildly popular that (125-year-old spoiler alert) after his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls — tumbling into a waterfall grappling with arch-nemesis Professor James Moriarty — Londoners wore black mourning armbands and deluged author Arthur Conan Doyle with angry fanmail.

It was one of the first efforts by a fandom to bring back a cancelled series they loved. Over a hundred years later, I followed in that fine tradition when I wrote to the SciFi Channel about the show "Farscape" — but I digress.

Doyle killed Sherlock off because he'd grown to hate him. He wanted to write other, more serious stories, but his adoring public wouldn't hear of it. Caving to the insistent demand, in need of money, Doyle resurrected Holmes three years later and by 1927 had written four novels and 56 short stories starring the detective.

I suspect he grumbled the entire time.

Sherls wasn't the first fictional detective; that honor goes to Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin.

But he remains the most popular. And though he's been brought to life by greats like Sir Christopher Lee, Sir Peter Cushing, John Cleese, Matt Frewer and Sir Ian McKellan, there are a handful of actors who spring to mind as "definitive" Holmeses.

Allow me to ruffle numerous feathers by ranking them in order of greatness:

5. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH (BBC's "Sherlock"). When "Sherlock" premiered, I was smitten by Bandersome Cumbersnatch's take on the character. The show was snarky, intricately plotted, well-acted, beautifully filmed. But as time passed (the lengthy breaks between seasons are now infamous), the more disillusioned I became with Benadryl Cabbagepatch's performance and the stories themselves. "Sherlock" perpetuates the "douchebag genius" trope, where a character can get away with being an awful person thanks to his intellect and skills, and the show is pretty gross in terms of misogyny, racism and homophobia. Plenty still adore Bumblebee Cauliflower's Sherlock — but he leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

4. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" and "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows") Yes, I know: how dare a Yank play the most famous British investigator. But RDJ's awfully fun in the role: manic and selfish, but still a breathing person beneath the bluster. His dynamic and chemistry with Jude Law's Watson is stellar, and he's more of an action hero in Ritchie's films. That may be anathema to some, but it does make him stand out.

3. BASIL RATHBONE (radio dramas, theater productions and 14 films) Basil probably holds the record for sheer number of times portraying the detective. His Sherlock is calm, capable, dry-witted and sharp as a razor. Suave and cultured, he's fond if a little condescending with his Watson (Nigel Bruce). Nobody else smokes a pipe with quite such panache, and he made the iconic deerstalker cap look good.

2. JEREMY BRETT (Granada TV series) Just as you never forget your first Doctor ("Doctor Who," I mean), you never forget your first Sherlock — for a lot of us, that means Brett. In terms of look, he's close to perfect with that aquiline nose and gift for disdainful glares; it's as if he stepped straight from a Sidney Paget illustration. Brett's Holmes has his moments of playfulness, a talent for devastating quips and really knows how to play the violin. He's practically perfect in almost every way.

1. JONNY LEE MILLER (CBS' "Elementary") Many will sneer at this choice, but: Miller's Sherls is by far the best. He's (almost) always the smartest in the room, yes, BUT he's never allowed to treat others badly because of it. Watson (the ever-incredible Lucy Liu) calls him out on his bad behavior and Miller's Sherls actually listens and learns! He grows and changes for the better; he can be kind and understanding; he's brilliant but also feeling. Not to mention he treats Watson like a respected, valued equal. Plus, "Elementary" is the first adapt to address Sherls' drug addiction in an open, honest way; Miller's gutsy, raw performance as a recovering addict is one of the best things about the series.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at

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